A compelling new feature documentary, Shock Room breaks open Stanley Milgram’s dramatic ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiment and forces us to re-evaluate its conclusions.
In the wake of the Holocaust, Milgram wanted to understand why people inflict harm on others. In 1962, he staged his experiment. Under the guise of participating in a study on memory and learning, participants were asked to inflict apparently lethal shocks on a fellow human being. Milgram later famously claimed that 65% of us will blindly follow orders.
My Lai, Rwanda, Enron, Abu Graib, the Deep Horizon Oil Spill, the News of the World phone hacking – ‘I was only following orders’ is a defence threaded through history.
But extensive research from Sydney filmmaker and self-professed Milgram obsessive, Kathryn Millard, reveals that although Milgram ran more than 25 versions of his experiment, he filmed only one. Overall, the majority of people actually resisted.
In Shock Room, Millard contends that while Milgram’s experiment is a rich source of insights about the conditions under which people not only obey, but also resist the dictates of their consciences, that Milgram’s experiment was also as much drama as laboratory study. Milgram himself described his experiments as a fusion of art and science.
Fifty years after Milgram’s original experiments, Millard, with a team of filmmakers and psychologists, re-staged Milgram’s experiments in Sydney, Australia, with actors using director Millard’s unique immersive realism technique. Shock Room combines dramatisations, animation, archival film and interviews with psychologists Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, providing new insights about how and why people refuse to inflict harm and the conclusions of the world’s most famous psychology experiment.
Shock Room turns a light on the dark side of human behavior and forces us to ask ourselves: what would I do?
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I first came across the work of Stanley Milgram as a student in Psychology 101 – or ‘Rats and Stats’ as we called it.
More interested in the behaviour of humans than rodents, I found Milgram’s black-and-white footage of ordinary people grappling with their consciences compelling. So much so that Obedience was one of the films that set me on the path to becoming a filmmaker. But I was always uneasy with Milgram’s conclusions. Were we really programmed to obey?
Fast-forwarding, I worked for screen culture organisations, wrote and directed documentaries and feature dramas, and completed postgraduate degrees in film and history. As an academic I combined—and continue to combine—creative practice with scholarship. For many years, revisiting Milgram’s dramatic experiment sat on my list of ‘One Day’ projects. In the meantime I read everything about it I could get my hands on. As well as the participants who disobeyed, I was particularly interested in Milgram’s work as a filmmaker: How did it shape his experiments? How did his film Obedience shape public understanding of his psychological work? After all Milgram himself acknowledged that his controversial experiment was as much art as science.
In 2008 I began ordering materials from Yale University’s Stirling Library where Milgram’s extensive archive of documents are held. I watched the out-takes of Obedience and read his notes. I remember the excitement of looking at new pieces of the puzzle—from script notes and film budgets to recordings and transcripts. Amongst his papers were lists of scrawled figures as he worked out how to make a film with a shoestring budget. As an independent filmmaker this was a scenario I knew only too well.
“I wanted to bring the Obedience experiments alive for audiences now”
Finding the groundbreaking work of social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam was an important step. Like me, they did not accept the conventional explanation for harmful behaviour, which goes: ‘I was just following orders’. I asked them to contribute their professional expertise to a film project I had in the pipeline.
From my 2012 micro-budget film, Random 8, I had developed a method of working with actors to restage social science experiments as drama. In 2013 I was awarded an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (Arts and Humanities Panel) to make a film revisioning Milgram’s landmark experiment. To this end, we built a contemporary version of Milgram’s laboratory set complete with shock machine. As Partner Investigators, Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam advised on psychology.
Fascinating as they are to watch, it is easy to dismiss the participants in Milgram’s 1965 film as historical figures from another era. Not like us. I wanted to bring the Obedience experiments alive for audiences now. In Shock Room, we follow nine fictional characters through contemporary dramatisations. Men and women of different ages, different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. I cast actors with experience in theatre as well as film, skilled actors capable of sustaining long improvisations. The actors agreed to participate in the project without knowing its storyline. I assured them that they would be safe (and that no nudity was involved). As a director, I consider the trust that the actors placed in me a great privilege. I sketched the characters in collaboration with the individual actors to ensure a representative mix of contemporary citizens. The actors then did their own detailed research to bring those invented characters to life. My brief to the actors was that we would be covering them with multiple cameras and shooting extended takes. They were responsible for responding in the scenario moment-by-moment. I cast Simon London as The Experimenter and Martin Crewes as The Learner. I shared my research with them and we spent some time interrogating all things Milgram.
When Director of Photography, Calvin Gardiner and I first talked about the film, we decided it was important to capture each character’s session as a complete entity. We needed a lot of cameras to get angles. We shot with three main cameras behind a one-way mirror to convey the sense of looking in through a window in the laboratory. Six Gro-Pros were placed in the set. The most important camera was on the shock machine itself to capture the drama between the teacher and the experimenter.
Sound Recordist James Currie wired everyone for sound. Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher were available to consult. We shot interviews with them drawing on their own interpretations of the dynamics of obedience and resistance.
Editor Karen Johnson and I shaped the film with an eye to the human drama. At assembly edit stage, Craig Deeker and The Gingerbread Man post-production house came on board. Tess Boughton’s hand-drawn animation brought some of the film’s big ideas to life. Phillip Johnston contributed an inventive jazz score. While Lawrence Horne’s sound design and mix treated the shock machine as a character in the drama.
Fifty years after Milgram’s film, we made Shock Room to tell a different story, a new story, about his famous experiment. A story that is as much about resistance as obedience. When I began researching this film, most laypeople and many psychologists accepted Milgram’s findings that two-thirds of us will obey orders to inflict harm on another person when ordered to do so by an authority figure, as gold standard. Incontrovertible. But now, more and more researchers around the world are questioning that. New eyes, new evidence, new insights. Shock Room.